Matt Gemmell

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Laptop Replacement

tech & ipad-only 5 min read

This article is part of a series on going iPad-only.

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I occasionally see the phrase “laptop replacement” regarding the iPad, despite the bizarreness of both the concept and the generalisation. Intelligent people like journalists and tech pundits use it, seemingly without humorous intent, and it puzzles me.

There’s no such thing as a laptop replacement, and if there were, the iPad isn’t meant to be one.

The term usually crops up in the context of the iPad not being whatever it is the author is looking for… and no wonder. The phrase itself is strange, like you’re consciously considering replacing your laptop (implicitly with something else, otherwise you’d just upgrade to a newer laptop, surely), are assessing the iPad as a candidate, and you find that it is indeed an entirely different thing… but that’s somehow a deal breaker. So you want to potentially not use a laptop anymore, but you also want a computer that does all the same things as a laptop, in pretty much the same way. In which case, I think the computer you’re looking for is a laptop.

The articles I read on this stuff invariably pose it as a general question, which makes no sense at all. Is The iPad A Laptop Replacement (Yet)? But that’s not even a thing! It can’t be a thing, because there’s no such thing as A Laptop, either. What you’re actually measuring against is your laptop and how you use it, so anything else is guaranteed to be insufficient.

There’s another pattern I see, which I’ll just mention as a side-note: the stronger the conclusion that the iPad can’t replace the author’s laptop, the more likely it is that the required tasks in question are irrelevant to 90% of the computer-using populace. That, or they haven’t allowed for any change in workflow and interaction model, which is an act of remarkable intellectual dishonesty. But I digress.

The two big general flaws in that kind of thinking are: (1) the idea of replacement is already laden with confirmation bias, and (2) the question can only ever be validly answered with reference to an individual. It’s as stupid as if I were to claim that iPads are, in some notional, bizarre, universal sense, “a laptop replacement”, just because I personally use an iPad full-time now. I don’t understand why this is hard to understand.

Why do you even want one device to be a replacement, in that sense, for another? Is it as simple as there being benefits to one or the other device that you want to enjoy, but you’re resentful that they’ll involve a change in approach, or compromises in workflow? That goes both ways. On the very rare occasion that I boot up the MacBook to let it update and run backups, or to grab a file, I have to make compromises too — because it’s just not an iPad replacement for me.

I have to use this janky metal pad and weird, disconnected arrow thing on the screen, which refuses to respond to my now-instinctive tapping on the UI with my forefinger. There are a hundred widgets on screen all the time, competing for attention. Focus is regularly snatched away. There’s so little uniformity of interaction. Everything is heavy and complex, and obviously the product of slow evolution and accretion, complete with all the digital appendices and gallbladders and other vestiges of 1980s tech. That’s a compromise for me. I struggle through, then I’m glad to put the thing away again afterwards. My tension headache goes away when macOS shuts down. You probably feel the same way about iOS, as I once did.

When deciding on a tool, there’s only your own context, and the stuff you want to do. If you can do that stuff on a given device, and you want to use that device, then I’d say, yes, you should probably use it. If you can’t and/or don’t want to, then… don’t. There is no war here. There are no factions.

I think the psychology behind this false dichotomy probably has something to do with fear of loss, as if we’re going to stop making new laptops if we dare to say that tablets are a more suitable and pleasant computer for a big chunk of people. It’s related to why some folk are against positive discrimination to redress gender imbalance, or why there are protests against equal marriage. But nobody’s banning men from all job interviews. Nobody’s making heterosexual marriage illegal. Nobody’s taking the laptops away. Sega or Nintendo! PlayStation or Xbox!

It’s all relative. When I switched to the iPad as a full-time computer in November 2016 — because I craved the extreme portability, chameleonic and directly-manipulated interface, and freedom from the nursing and tweaking that traditional computers required and afforded — I made a list of all the tasks I might still need to keep the laptop around for. There were eleven items on it. Here they are, in approximate decreasing order of frequency:

  • Making the weekly site-members’ newsletters, which merge HTML templates together and convert Markdown content. (I make the newsletters on the iPad now.)
  • Building and publishing this site itself, using the Jekyll static site generator. (I do my blogging on the iPad now.)
  • The fulfilment workflow for shipping autographed paperbacks. (I do this on the iPad now, with an AirPrint printer, plus Apple’s iWork apps: Pages for shipping labels, and Numbers for tracking orders.)
  • Making tweaks to the site’s design and functionality, and staging a development version of the site while I work on it. (I do my web development on the iPad now.)
  • Testing the site in terms of responsive design. (I use Inspect, and Web Tools on the iPad for this now.)
  • Testing the site in other browsers.
  • Graphics work for the site. (I use Affinity Photo on the iPad for this now.)
  • iTunes local backups of iOS devices before OS or hardware upgrades.
  • Managing my music collection on my devices, via iTunes.
  • Preparing novel ebooks and PDF print masters. (I use Ulysses on the iPad for this now.)
  • Doing my taxes. (I use Numbers from iWork for this now on the iPad.)

I also wrote down a modest goal, in the interests of giving the iPad a fair chance: Use MacBook less than once a week, on average.

At time of writing in June 2017, here’s what the list looks like now:

  • Testing the site in other browsers.
  • iTunes local backups of iOS devices before major OS upgrades.

I do serious browser testing about twice a year, if that, because I don’t tweak the site’s CSS any more often. I could just use a remote browser testing service instead, and I could remove this point from the list too.

I do local backups of my devices when there’s a new iOS version. I don’t bother for hardware upgrades; iCloud is fine. I haven’t messed with my music collection via iTunes in over a year now; I just have my own stuff already on the iPhone, and add new things directly via the iTunes Store app.

Already, the laptop has become a special-purpose peripheral that comes out of the drawer for actual use only a couple of times per year — and even then, it’s not strictly necessary. I have a calendar reminder to boot it up every second Monday to update it, and that’s the most I see of it.

In terms of the tasks I need my computing device for, I do some dorky technical stuff, and I use automation utilities, and some scripting, and I also produce actual work. Plus I do all the usual web browsing and email and social media. The iPad isn’t a laptop replacement, because it’s not a laptop. I wasn’t looking for one. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone under twenty years of age with a laptop, either. But the iPad has replaced my MacBook. That’s a fact.

No-one’s saying that it either can or can’t replace yours, or whether you’d want it to. Except the pundits and journalists who can’t seem to let go of the idea that it’s an either-or situation, where we need to have a winner and a loser. I’m not sure what they’re afraid of.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are just getting things done.